The First-Time Camp Experience: Determining Whether Your Child is Ready

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Camp can be a life-changing experience. Kids make new friends, participate in a broad range of activities, and develop independence, confidence, and skills relevant to home, school, and social settings. But how do parents know if their children are ready for camp? What are the factors to consider, and what sorts of conversations should take place between camp and home in determining whether this is the summer for a child to venture into a residential camp experience?

              Andy Lilienthal, director of Camp Winnebago, a boys’ camp in Fayette, says there are several considerations in evaluating whether a child is ready for camp. First, is a child able to be away from home overnight? Lilienthal cites child experts, who assert that “if a child can be away for one night, they can be away for many nights.”  Other factors play a role, too, he says. For example, parents benefit from understanding that their kids pick up on parents’ “emotional level” about the camp question.

              “If parents come into the prospect feeling ambivalent, kids will pick up on that,” he says.

              Lilienthal says he also talks to parents about whether their kids learn from mistakes and move on. That ability “shows a level of maturity” that will allow a boy to get the most from the camp experience.

              “So much of camp is about learning and evolving,” he says. “If they don’t have the emotional wherewithal to be there, it could create roadblocks.” Other factors are whether the child really wants to go, and what the family’s goals are for the camp experience, Lilienthal says.

              One question to ask is whether the child is “willing to try a lot of different things,” because that is the culture of the camp, Lilienthal says. In addition, parents can affect their children’s readiness for camp by partnering with them, he says.

              “The more help you can give the child in terms of preparing emotionally, the more successful they will be,” Lilienthal says.

              The issue of homesickness is not necessarily a “barrier to entry,” he says. “It’s not just the youngest kids who get homesick.”

              Louise Fritts Johnson, director of Camp Arcadia, a girls’ camp in Otisfield, agrees that the question of homesickness isn’t necessarily a litmus test for a child’s readiness. Transition times can be difficult, she says. “It doesn’t mean camp’s not the right thing,” she says. “It means mom and child have set up a great environment.”

              Johnson says one helpful way of gauging a girl’s readiness is for a parent to observe the girl as she watches the camp’s informational video. The parent may see excitement and enthusiasm, or may see panic, she says. It’s also helpful to consider whether the child has had separation from the parents, and the nature of those separations, she says.

              Johnson says she had four seven-year-olds enrolled at Camp Arcadia last summer, and all did very well. One of the girls stayed the full seven-week session.

              Mary Ellen Deschenes, Chief of Outdoor Operations at Girl Scouts of Maine, says whether a girl has slept away from home is a factor in evaluating whether she is ready to attend Camp Natarswi or Camp Pondicherry. Both camps consist of one-week sessions, and Deschenes says a baseline question is whether the girl is excited to attend.

              She acknowledges that sometimes the parent presents the reluctant party, and if the parent is “child-sick, rather than the other way around,” camp personnel can “allay their concerns.”

              The camp experience gives girls as young as seven the chance to “learn some independence, and be with other adults as mentors and guides,” Deschenes says. Last summer about 560 girls attended Girl Scout camp, she says. And girls do not need to be members of Girl Scout troops to register, she says.

              At Camp Wawenock, a girls’ camp in Raymond, girls can attend a one-week introductory session at ages six, seven and eight, says Director Catriona Sangster, and the camp also offers a three-and-a-half week session for girls aged seven, eight and nine. Girls entering grade four and up attend the full seven-week session.

              “One great indicator” of a child’s readiness is whether she has ever slept away from home, says Sangster. It is important to remember, too, that adults and children have very different concepts of time, she says.

              “Time away from home is kind of irrelevant to a child as long as they feel at home where they are,” Sangster says. “That’s our focus for the first week of the full season or the first days of the introductory program.”

              Giving girls a feeling of belonging will help ensure their success, she says.

              In fact, Sangster says, focusing on how long a child is away from home is “a parent issue, not a child issue.” By focusing on what each day will be like, kids are living in the moment. For example, girls who are eight or nine “do great,” she says. “They have no concept of time, and love structure. Once they get the structure, and figure out what to do when, and how to do it, it’s like clockwork.”

              Sangster says girls can also prepare for camp by interacting with her prior to arriving. “I can have a little more rapport with her, and can see what is motivating her.”

              Camp Wawenock sends a letter to families each spring with tips for preparing for camp, which also helps girls feel ready, Sangster says. In addition, she says, technology helps girls feel more ready. For example, Skype conversations allow Sangster to observe body language of prospective campers, she says.

              Camps across Maine are in full swing reaching out to families in preparation for the summer of 2018. And families are starting to think about how kids will spend their summer months. Whether a child considers a single week of camp, or an entire season, the opportunities can be life-changing. Through thorough collaboration – both in person and via technology – camp directors and families are poised to plan exciting and adventuresome summers for kids of all ages.



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